IATSE Locals Elect New Leadership, But Hard Feelings Over Contract Fade

Five months ago, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees was bitterly divided over a new contract, which was ratified by a historically narrow margin.

Half of the membership defied their leaders and voted “no,” as opponents blamed International President Matthew Loeb for settling for too little and for not capitalizing on the threat of an industrywide strike.

But while some of that anger remains, there is little evidence that the issue has carried over into local leadership elections this spring. Even where local unions have thrown out their leaders, turnout has been low, and the issues seem to turn more on personalities than on the contract.

One of the hotbeds of resistance to the deal was IATSE Local 80, the union that represents 3,800 grips, crafts service workers and set medics. Nearly 70% of the union voted “no” on ratification, and the union’s longtime leader, business manager Thom Davis, resigned in December rather than seek re-election, saying at the time that he had long planned to retire.

Joel Galarza, a board member who opposed the contract, ran to replace Davis, hoping to harness the opposition. In a race for the interim job in February, he came within 10 votes of defeating DeJon Ellis, Jr., who had served as assistant business agent under Davis. The two candidates faced off again in a race for a full three-year term in April, and Ellis won more decisively, by a vote of 342 to 261.

Voter turnout was just 20% — a fraction of the turnout for the strike authorization vote and the ratification vote last fall.

Ellis becomes the first Black business manager in the guild’s history. He supported the contract, albeit in a nuanced way.

“As IATSE contracts go, this was one of the best,” he said in an interview. But he added, “I didn’t think it went far enough.”

Other unions have also seen leadership turnover. The Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild, IATSE Local 706, elected Karen Westerfield to the post of business representative earlier this month. She defeated the incumbent, Randy Sayer, by a vote of 422 to 349.

Sayer had succeeded in persuading the membership to vote for ratification last fall. In an interview, Westerfield said the election was not about the contract, and she declined to say how she voted on ratification. Instead, she said the primary concern was that some members felt “talked down to.” She also speculated that because of the pandemic, they were more inclined to “shake things up.”

“A lot of people didn’t like the way they were being treated,” she said. “People have started speaking up for themselves. They’re tired of the same-old, same-old.”

Sayer declined to comment.

Westerfield is the first woman and first person of color — she is half-Japanese — elected to lead the guild. She won three Emmys for her work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” On “Deep Space Nine,” she did the makeup for Armin Shimerman, the actor who played Quark, the Ferengi bartender.

In the Art Directors Guild, Local 800, Joel Cohen defeated the incumbent, who goes by the name dooner, in an upset, 421 to 388, to become associate national executive director. Chuck Parker was re-elected to the position of national executive director.

In an interview, dooner said he would challenge the results on the grounds that members who live outside of Los Angeles did not receive their mail-in ballots in time. He said the issues in the campaign had little to do with the Basic Agreement, which the membership supported by a vote of almost 2-to-1. Instead, he said it boiled down to “typical” issues for a local union campaign.

“Every local union, regardless of the industry, has a portion of the membership that is not in power and a portion that is the incumbent group,” he said. “The members who have disagreements tend to be the loud voices in the room.”

He has until Thursday to dispute the result.

A similar challenge in Local 706 earlier this year led to a revote. Sayer had narrowly won the first election, but local officials determined that a revote was necessary due to concerns over ballot security.

Two other locals are still involved in voting. In Local 44, which represents property crafts, Anthony Pawluc, the longtime secretary treasurer, has been forced into a runoff against Ed McCarthy. Ballots are due back next week.

The International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, is holding an election for president, after John Lindley opted not to seek a second term. The four candidates are Dianne Fairrington, Casey Shaw, Jamie Silverstein, Baird Steptoe Sr. The results of that election will be announced May 13.

(Pictured: DeJon Ellis, Jr.)

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